Randall Williams

March 15, 2019

Sportsmen and District Court Judge Challenge Final Sage Grouse Conservation Plans

The BLM’s final revised sage grouse conservation plans will play a major role in determining the future of the sagebrush ecosystem, which supports more than 350 species

UPDATE: On October 16, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that the Bureau of Land Management failed to fully analyze how sage grouse would be affected by changes in the land-use plan amendments finalized in March 2019. The TRCP and several partner organizations supported some targeted changes when the administration announced re-opening the plans, but cautioned against a major overhaul.

The preliminary injunction blocks the BLM from implementing the 2019 amended plans and reverts management actions back to the 2015 conservation plans that convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird for Endangered Species Act protections. Activities like oil and gas development can proceed while this injunction is in place, but projects must comply with all directives of the 2015 BLM plans, including prioritizing areas outside sage-grouse habitat for development.

Since the Trump Administration decided to revamp conservation plans in 2016, leasing in sage grouse priority habitat has increased tenfold. Although the injunction does not invalidate lease sales made during this period, it certainly opens them to legal challenges.

Read on for the original post on the revised BLM plans.

Sage grouse in the company of other sagebrush species.

The Bureau of Land Management has finalized its revised plans to conserve greater sage grouse populations across millions of acres of public land in several Western states. The administration’s approach replaces previous BLM plans, which helped to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confidence that the species did not warrant listing as threatened or endangered in 2015.

While the state-specific plans maintain the basic framework of the originals, which were created through years of collaborative effort, the new plans do not provide the same safeguards for certain sagebrush habitats. There is more potential for development and mineral extraction within sage grouse habitat in the new plans. Combined with the Department of Interior’s policy shift on mitigation, this could be cause for concern.

“The finalized plans are a mixed bag, with some changes addressing legitimate requests from the states to help align with their conservation approaches and other changes stripping back protections for core sage grouse habitat and creating more uncertainty for the West,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Success will ultimately come down to implementing these new plans and never wavering from an approach that produces positive results for sage grouse habitat and populations. We will continue working with the BLM, Western states, industry, and local partners to ensure that happens.”

The final plans eliminate focal areas, a subset of about 11 million acres of priority habitat on BLM land that would have been permanently withdrawn from any potential mineral extraction in the 2015 plans. The original no-surface occupancy policy remains—meaning infrastructure for development cannot be built on priority habitat—but the revised plans also give the BLM more flexibility to waive these protections in certain cases.

The previous plans also more clearly steered oil and gas leasing away from the best sage grouse habitat, but now the BLM is offering extensive tracts of priority habitat to willing buyers at a rapid pace rather than favoring non-habitat areas.

“We’ve seen a dramatic shift away from prioritizing energy leasing away from the best habitat and are now witnessing leasing of some of the very best remaining tracks of unfragmented land,” says Dr. Ed Arnett, chief scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We realize that leasing does not equate to development, and operators still must abide by stipulations for priority habitat, but it just makes good sense to steer disturbance toward non-habitat or stagger the timing of development in and around grouse habitat.”

Mitigation also remains a sticking point, now that the Department of the Interior maintains that it lacks legal authority to require developers to pay for any negative impacts to habitat. (Quick tip: Here’s a metaphor that helps explain mitigation using beer!) This shifts the onus of regulation to the individual states, each of which has different mitigation standards and legal requirements. The states now must ensure their mitigation approaches are not only effective at curbing habitat loss, but also at holding all developers accountable on a level playing field.

“Mitigation was a fundamental component of the 2015 plans that helped reach the not warranted decision,” says Steve Belinda, executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership. “Without offsetting unforeseen or unavoidable impacts – it’s loss of habitat over time, plain and simple.”

It will be important to move forward swiftly with implementation of these new plans to conserve sagebrush habitat and begin tracking the effectiveness of conservation measures.

“Whatever approach we take, the outcome for sage grouse and sagebrush habitat will need to be legally defensible,” says Dr. Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If there is not enough regulatory certainty, if there is too much flexibility leading to negative impacts on habitat, and it is determined that our actions were not effective, we may end up facing a legal challenge deeper than the one we started from years ago. At that point, it’s difficult to see a future where sage grouse aren’t reconsidered for listing.”

The U.S. Forest Service continues to finalize its own amendments to eight forest plans dealing with sage grouse conservation in the West. The public comment period for proposed amendments closed on January 3, 2019, and the final revisions will be out in the coming months.

 

Photo by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS
This blog was originally posted on March 15, 2019, and was updated on October 23, 2019.

One Response to “Sportsmen and District Court Judge Challenge Final Sage Grouse Conservation Plans”

  1. Russell Tait

    The majority of problem is not with oil and gas exploration, it is with habitat fragmentation caused from urban sprawl, 10-20 acre ranchettes and rural subdivisions. Oil drilling is usually a short duration impact with minor disturbance from pumping facilities, but once a house or housing development becomes established they will never be demolished and surrounding lands and roads reclaimed. It is easier to blame oil and gas or mineral/non-mineral extraction operations for the loss in habitat than to try and pass any legislation to limit what a landowner can do with their own property. Research into alternate fuel sources for automobiles should be a priority. If demand goes down so would exploration. People are selfish and are not going to stop driving, no matter what the environmental costs will be. Wind and solar energy has it’s own short and long-term impacts to habitat and wildlife as well and is not a viable nor economical solution.

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Randall Williams

March 14, 2019

Forest Service Rejects Oil and Gas Lease Proposal for the Ruby Mountains

Sportsmen and women applaud agency’s decision to conserve wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities

The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest has determined that 54,000 acres in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains will not be made available for oil and gas exploration.

The Forest Service released its Decision Notice and final Environmental Assessment today.

Forest Supervisor Bill Dunkelberger noted there was limited geologic potential for drilling in the area under consideration and there are concerns regarding potential harm to wildlife and scenic values.

The Ruby Mountains are home to Nevada’s largest mule deer herd, critical populations of the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, and numerous other fish and wildlife species. In addition, they are a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts of all types.

Earlier this year Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) introduced a bill to prohibit oil and gas leasing on National Forest lands in this area.

“The Rubies offer some of Nevada’s finest hunting and fishing opportunities, and we’re glad that the agency has listened to the overwhelming public opposition to their development,” said Carl Erquiaga, the Nevada Field Representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “While today’s announcement is very encouraging for those of us who care about these mountains, a permanent solution is needed to conserve this world-class hunting destination, and we encourage Congress to move without delay to pass the Ruby Mountain Protection Act.”

 

Photo credit: Tom Hilton

Alex Maggos

March 13, 2019

What the F@rm B!ll Happened to CRP?

Without a doubt, the Conservation Reserve Program is a favorite for sportsmen and farmers—here’s a look at the sweeping changes the 2018 Farm Bill made to this important program

The Conservation Reserve Program helps America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to voluntarily conserve environmentally sensitive land. Thanks to the wildlife habitat benefits of the program, CRP is a household name with landowners and sportsmen in some parts of the country. (At least as much as any of the Farm Bill conservation program acronyms can be.)

Introduced in the 1985 Farm Bill, CRP once supported 37 million acres devoted to conserving soil, water, and wildlife habitat. But Congress reduced the size of the program to just 24 million acres in the 2014 Farm Bill, which forced the U.S. Department of Agriculture to turn down thousands of CRP applications with millions of potential acres for conservation.

The hunting and fishing community pushed long and hard for a major increase to CRP acres in the new Farm Bill. Here’s what happened.

Photo by USDA NRCS Montana.
Some Good News, Some Bad News

Fortunately, the 2018 Farm Bill added 3 million acres back into the program, increasing the size to 27 million acres and helping meet landowner demand. But the additional cost of growing the program was paid for by placing a cap on rental rate payments. For general CRP, which typically includes larger tracts of acreage, lawmakers capped rental rates at 85 percent of the county average, while rental rates for continuous CRP on environmentally sensitive lands were capped at 90 percent.

This means CRP will be less likely to outbid beginning farmers who often lease their land from landowners. The downside being that the lower rental rates could lead to a decrease in landowner demand for the program. We remain optimistic that these changes will help keep CRP viable, and the TRCP is working to ensure the program continues to benefit water quality, wildlife, and landowners as the 2018 Farm Bill is implemented.

Photo by Dusan Smetana.
Other Wins for CRP

The new Farm Bill also calls on the Secretary of Agriculture to target the CRP toward a handful of priorities. This includes enrollment of 30 percent of all CRP acres within continuous CRP, which promotes practices that benefit water and wildlife, such as riparian buffers, filter strips, wetland restoration, and more.

Additionally, the bill directs the Secretary to enroll up to 2 million acres into CRP grasslands, making the program a little more flexible for livestock and grazing operations. The 2018 bill also authorizes the Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative and directs the Secretary to maintain at least 40 percent of continuous acres in CLEAR practices focused on improving water quality by reducing farm runoff.

For general CRP, the bill now mandates that the USDA hold annual sign-ups. Considering the last general sign-up was held more than three years ago and had the lowest acceptance rate—about 20 percent—in the program’s history, a mandated sign-up is a critical step toward meeting landowner demand. The legislation also directs the agency to meet acreage quotas based upon historical state enrollments. This mandate will lead to the annual addition of larger tracts of land that are a favorite of upland bird hunters.

Combined, we achieved some meaningful legislative changes in the 2018 Farm Bill that help connect landowners with CRP’s conservation tools and extend the program’s benefits to water and wildlife. But future Farm Bills could do even more for CRP—the demand is there.

For a look at the other improvements the 2018 Farm Bill made for conservation, click here.

Marnee Banks

March 12, 2019

TRCP’s Chief Conservation Officer Testifies Before Congress on Ways to Support Fish and Wildlife

We took advantage of this exclusive opportunity to advocate for investments in conservation that support hunters, anglers, and the outdoor recreation economy

Christy Plumer, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s chief conservation officer, told House lawmakers today that America’s conservation legacy is under attack, and Congress must take action to conserve the nation’s fish and wildlife.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, Plumer noted that in the 1970s, conservation spending made up more than 2 percent of the federal budget, and today it accounts for only about one percent.

“For more than three decades, budgets for agencies that manage our public lands have been squeezed and shrunk,” said Plumer. “Recreation facilities across the country are being closed or lie in disrepair. The expansion of human development across the landscape— including our cities and towns but also our highway infrastructure and energy development are leading to significant challenges in fish and wildlife management.”

She described these challenges being exacerbated by climate change.

“Sportsmen and women are on the frontlines and seeing the changes in fish and wildlife populations and our natural systems due to climate change,” said Plumer. “This includes shifting migratory patterns and mating seasons. We recognize something needs to be done and want to be part of the solution.”

Plumer noted that generations of conservation-minded leaders have created a public-lands network that is unparalleled supporting the ability of all Americans to hunt and fish, regardless of class or economic status.

“It is a system that benefits everyone, from the sportsman and woman to the hiker and those who simply want to drink clean water or experience wide open spaces,” said Plumer.

She relayed the following recommendations to Congress:

  • Pass the Modernizing the Pittman-Robertson Fund for Tomorrow’s Needs Act to clarify that this important sportsmen-sourced conservation fund can be used by state fish and wildlife agencies for outreach, communication, and education related to the recruitment, retention, and reactivation of hunters and recreational shooters.
  • Reauthorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act to provide grants that protect, restore, and manage wetlands and associated habitats for migratory birds and other wildlife.
  • Pass the National Fish Habitat Conservation Through Partnerships Act to support a voluntary fish habitat conservation program driven by federal, state, and local agencies as well as conservation and sportsmen’s organizations, private landowners, and businesses. These partnerships have created more than 700 successful conservation projects in 50 states, benefitting fish habitat and anglers throughout the country.
  • Pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act to invest in high-priority habitat, stronger fish and wildlife populations, and a more robust outdoor recreation economy. Right now, 12,000 species in America need conservation action. If these species become threatened or endangered, sportsmen and women will lose out. This bill empowers on-the-ground wildlife experts to implement science-based conservation plans that will preserve these species into the future.
  • Protect migration corridors from development.
  • Use the Highway Bill to advance conservation efforts related to America’s roads and highway infrastructure. This could include securing new funding for migration crossings and aquatic connectivity and bringing funding for the Natural Wildlife Refuge System, BLM public lands, and U.S. Forest System up to levels on par with the National Park System. There is potential in the Highway Bill to strengthen coastal resilience by investing in natural and nature-based barriers to flooding and storm surge and streamline permitting as outlined in the FAST Act.
  • Address the spread of chronic wasting disease by investing more in research, testing, and state wildlife agency resources through the appropriations process.
Watch Plumer’s testimony on our Facebook page HERE.

 

Chris Macaluso

March 4, 2019

Ghost Forests Are a Haunting Reminder of Louisiana’s Lost Wetlands

How an ambitious plan for Gulf coast restoration will allow cypress forests to rebound, support wildlife, and defend communities from deadly storms

The bald cypress tree is an icon in Louisiana, like a Mardi Gras mask or the fleur de lis on the side of a New Orleans Saints helmet. Millions of acres of winding bayous, overflow swamps, lakeshores, and seasonal crevasses are lined with our majestic state tree, along with tupelo gums, swamp maples, and the occasional stately oak.

Wading birds, wood ducks, bald eagles and many others take rest and often make their nests in the cypresses. Fishermen pitch plastic worms, spinnerbaits, and tube jigs at a maze of cypress roots to catch bass, bluegills, and sac a lait—those are crappies to you east coasters.

But cypress forests do more than define our landscape and support our wildlife—they also store flood waters during the spring, help hold the loose soils of South Louisiana together, and provide natural protection to coastal communities by curbing ravaging hurricane winds and storm surge.

Unfortunately, large swaths of coastal cypress forests have been wiped out across South Louisiana. Initially, the trees were overharvested to build houses, railroads, and anything else that needed wood. Later, levees built on the Mississippi River to facilitate navigation and oil and gas extraction pushed salt water from the Gulf inland as much as 50 miles. And navigation canals were carved into the swamps, causing even more destruction.

Healthy bald cypress wetlands (left) versus a ghost forest (right).

Dead expanses of trees, often called “ghost forests” by locals, are scattered throughout the coast in impounded swamps and among the saltwater-tolerant cord grasses that took hold where no other plants could live. The Cajun old timers speak of when they used to duck and deer hunt and catch bass and crawfish in these same cypress breaks decades ago.

Now, preserving the existing coastal forests and replacing some that were lost in the last century is a top priority in Louisiana. The state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has spent $15.8 million since 2011 to buy coastal forest lands from willing sellers, preserve the habitat, and ensure the trees aren’t harvested. About $2 million of this funding, plus another $6.5 million in settlements from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, were used to help expand the Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area—a more than 100,000-acre public tract of cypress-tupelo swamp between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Non-profit organizations, like the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, America’s Wetland Foundation, and Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and utilized countless volunteer man-hours to plant cypress trees in areas where over-harvest and saltwater intrusion has made it impossible for the trees to regrow on their own.

These noble efforts would be fruitless, however, without additional work to limit the saltwater intrusion that initially caused the trees’ demise. Rebuilding coastal barrier islands, replenishing marshes and natural ridges with dredged sediment, and building diversions to allow the Mississippi River to again spill into its deltaic swamps will keep the Gulf of Mexico at bay and allow coastal forests to grow back into vital fish and wildlife habitat and hurricane protection.

Volunteers help replant a historic cypress forest in Pointe-aux-Chenes Wildlife Management Area. Photo by America’s Wetland Foundation.

Louisiana has an aggressive coastal restoration and hurricane protection master plan that aims to build a host of projects needed to reconnect the Mississippi River to its historic delta, restore coastal marshes, and keep salt water in the Gulf. This is just another example of how the state’s nearly $8-billion share of the Deepwater Horizon settlement is rebuilding a better coastline in the next two decades.

The TRCP and its partners have worked closely with Louisiana and federal lawmakers and agencies to expedite permitting and construction on these projects while educating sportsmen and women about the benefits to fish, wildlife, and the outdoor recreation economy.  

The money is available. The projects have been designed to help reverse the factors that have led to the loss of nearly 2,000 square miles of coastal swamps and wetlands in the last 100 years. But it will continue to take strong political will to make sure these projects, especially those designed to reconnect the Mississippi River, get built quickly.

That political will must come, in large part, from the hunters and anglers who live in or visit Sportsman’s Paradise. To see what coastal restoration projects can do for fishing, watch this video.

 

Top photo by Kent Kanouse via flickr

HOW YOU CAN HELP

WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?

The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.

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